Though the state of the Kansas basketball roster remains in a bit of flux roughly six months before the 2019-20 season officially begins, one definite Jayhawk who seems capable of cracking the rotation is freshman Tristan Enaruna.
Originally from the Netherlands and more recently a four-star prospect at Wasatch Academy, in Mt. Pleasant, Utah, Enaruna won’t arrive in Lawrence ready to dominate, or even start. But the Dutch forward sure looks and speaks like the type of player Bill Self will love to coach.
When KU announced that Enaruna signed his letter of intent, Self invoked the names of Kelly Oubre Jr. and Andrew Wiggins while trying to give KU fans an idea of what to expect from the freshman, at least from a “size, athletic ability and skill set” standpoint.
It’s important to note at this point that Self wasn’t labeling Enaruna as a one-and-done 2020 first round NBA draft pick to be by mentioning the new signee in the same breath as Oubre and Wiggins. Enaruna has been on the international basketball radar for a few years now, but the intrigue surrounding him remains rooted in what he may one day become.
Sure, if you squint your eyes just right while watching Enaruna highlights he may sort of resemble Oubre or Wiggins while rising up for a fastbreak jam. However, it seems far more likely that during his freshman season at Kansas Enaruna will favor those two most as a long, athletic wing defender.
Earlier this year, months before Enaruna committed to Kansas, he was in Charlotte, N.C., for the Basketball Without Borders international showcase. It was there that he spoke in detail with ESPN NBA Draft analyst Mike Schmitz about his game.
After exhibiting his abilities in a gymnasium occupied by numerous NBA scouts, Enaruna said his plan was to play aggressively on both ends of the floor.
“A few years ago I was relying too much on offense. If my offense didn’t go well then my defense was probably pretty bad, too. So I worked on that,” Enaruna explained.
According to what the young prospect told Schmitz, he had trouble finding a rhythm during the first half of his senior season at Wasatch Academy, but his game improved during the second half of the schedule by playing “tougher.”
So Enaruna is an incoming freshman who apparently values defense and toughness? It’s hard to imagine a better route to playing time on a Self coached team.
While Enaruna also professed to be a more consistent shooter now than he was a few years ago, his defense will probably be ahead of his offense as a first-year player at the collegiate level. And if he’s consistent on that end of the floor, with his 6-foot-8-ish frame and reported 7-foot wingspan, Enaruna should get to play through more offensive missteps than your typical KU freshman.
Enaruna, like most college basketball players with a pulse, has NBA dreams. In fact, it may be his confidence and willingness to combat on the defensive end of the court that eventually gets him that far.
When Schmitz asked him at Basketball Without Borders about how he thought he would fit into today’s NBA, Enaruna’s response pointed to the “positionless" nature of the game, with bigs capable of driving and shooting.
“You have to be able to guard multiple positions. And I think that I’ll fit in that situation pretty good,” Enaruna said.
While YouTube highlights of Enaruna show him doing plenty offensively — pulling up for 3-pointers, finishing above the rim with his long arms, driving past lazy defenders, attacking off the bounce and dishing to teammates inside and more — it’s hard to watch many of those clips without hearing Self’s voice say “that’s not ball” regarding the level of effort being exerted by some of Enaruna’s victims.
For as smooth as he looks with the ball in his hands at his edited for YouTube best, it will be the not as clickable dirty work on defense — in which Enaruna seems to take great pride — that will make him valuable for KU next season as a reserve.
Thomas MacVittie was only two-thirds of the way through spring football when he plopped down in one of Mrkonic Auditorium’s numerous seats inside Anderson Family Football Complex.
The University of Kansas quarterback and his teammates had just wrapped up their 10th practice and MacVittie had yet to take off the wristband he uses not to wipe sweat away from his forehead, but as a convenient reminder of the offense’s available play calls.
“These are pretty long,” MacVittie told the Journal-World at the time, glancing down at two laminated notecard-sized lists attached to his wristband, with the name of a different play call printed out on each line.
Although the Jayhawks kept much of the offensive details for Year 1 of the Les Miles era under wraps during media sessions this spring, MacVittie was glad to at least shed some light on the process of learning it all.
KU quarterbacks, MacVittie explained, often reference their wristbands when they’re lined up under center. But the usefulness of the uniform accessory isn’t limited to that situation. The wristbands are most useful for what MacVittie, a junior who joined the program this year as a transfer, described as “the long plays.”
In some situations, the KU offense has two possible plays to run when they line up and the one they choose before the snap depends on what they see from the defense in front of them.
“And we’ve got to check to the right play,” MacVittie explained. “That is what the wristband is for. Those are pretty long.”
How many plays were on there at the moment, with 10 of KU’s 15 spring practices completed?
MacVittie flipped the top flap of plays out of the way and eyed the second card beneath it.
“Umm. Let’s see. We’ve got 34,” the QB replied. “Adding to it every day.”
Throughout the spring, KU’s offensive coaches installed new plays for every practice. And for the Jayhawks who relay those calls to the rest of their teammates before every single snap, that meant huddling up in the QBs room before each of those practices to learn the details.
“This is what we’re gonna go do on the field in an hour,” MacVittie related of offensive coordinator and QBs coach Les Koenning’s typical message during those pre-practice meetings.
“It makes you learn fast, adapt fast and really kind of play on your feet,” MacVittie said of why he appreciated the process. “You can’t be back there thinking. You’ve just kind of got to do. And that comes with preparation, as well.”
Of course, MacVittie took other necessary steps to familiarize himself with the offense, through reviewing practice footage and other measures.
“Every day I come in,” the 6-foot-5, 215-pound QB shared of his spring football study routine. “I think I’m at the facility for probably five hours outside of needing to be. Asking coach to quiz me. Pulling up the film from practice. Kind of getting an edge on any new plays coming in.”
According to MacVittie, quizzes proved to be a valuable factor in his progress. What felt like almost every day throughout the spring, he said, Koenning provided the quarterbacks with brief tests of their playbook knowledge, with the help of senior offensive consultant Brent Dearmon.
Every KU quarterback would be handed a sheet of paper with specific play calls listed. The QBs then had to show off their X’s and O’s abilities by drawing up the plays correctly.
A former reserve QB at Pittsburgh and a starter in 2018 at Mesa Community College (Ariz.), the potential KU starter for Miles’ first season with the Jayhawks, MacVittie said he took pride in doing well on the quizzes, preparing for them by studying the playbook every night.
“They’re random,” MacVittie said of the plays that would show up at test time. “They could be from Day 1, they could be from Day 6. So you’ve really got to know it all.”
By the time the Jayhawks finished up spring football, Miles said they had gone through “at minimum” 50 percent of the offensive playbook. Obviously much more will be installed during preseason camp in August.
Just as he did throughout March and April, MacVittie expects to memorize it all, and prove his knowledge on quizzes and the practice fields. The expectation, he said, is to master the assignments for all 11 offensive players on every play call.
“The reads, the steps, what everybody’s doing,” he said, “to a ’T.’”
What a difference a year makes. Or more specifically, in the case of the University of Kansas football program, what a difference two leadership shakeups seem to have made.
A year ago at this time, when CBS Sports rolled out its rankings of Power Five college football coaches, the man in charge of KU football, David Beaty, finished dead last.
In the 12 months since then, KU chancellor Douglas Girod fired Athletic Director Sheahon Zenger, the man responsible for hiring Beaty. After observing what proved to be Beaty’s final season with the Jayhawks, KU’s new AD, Jeff Long, fired Beaty and replaced him with a reputable name and face (and hat) in the college football universe.
The presence of Les Miles didn’t propel Kansas from worst to first in the coach rankings. Far from it. But given how low the program has been, worst to 38th doesn’t look or sound that bad.
It’s not the kind of accomplishment that will inspire commemorative T-shirts, or even a social media hashtag, but seeing KU’s football coach ranked ahead of 27 other men in charge of Power Five programs seems like progress, even if the legitimate signs of growth will have to be proven in, you know, actual college football games this coming fall.
In the meantime, we have this list as one reminder that Miles’ presence alone has more people paying attention to KU, even at the national level.
Clearly the college football writers at CBS Sports who voted on these rankings don’t envision Miles’ arrival meaning the Jayhawks are ready to conquer and leapfrog a number of Big 12 programs. It just means Miles’ 142-55 combined record during his 15-plus seasons in charge of the football programs at Oklahoma State and LSU still carries some weight — even though when Miles makes his KU coaching debut this fall it will mark his first time on a sideline since September of 2016, when LSU fired him four games into the season.
Miles’ time away from the game likely hurt him in these rankings, which CBS’ Tom Fornelli points out involve “no strict guidelines.” Miles only ranks seventh among Big 12 coaches on the list. He’s ahead of Texas Tech’s Matt Wells (No. 43) and Kansas State’s Chris Klieman (No. 56), but the national championship ring Miles won at LSU to cap the Tigers’ 2007 campaign wasn’t enough to land him ahead of the Big 12’s seven other coaches more than a decade later.
Here’s a portion of what Fornelli wrote about Miles for the rankings, which counted down Nos. 65 through 26, ahead of the yet to be released top 25:
“I think there's been an overall tendency to underestimate Miles' ability as a coach, as people had a penchant for ascribing his success at LSU to it being LSU. Still, I think this is probably a little too low for Miles (I only had him at 33 myself) considering he has won a national title.”
The poll ranked Baylor’s Matt Rhule (No. 31) and West Virginia’s Neal Brown (No. 36) ahead of Miles, and when the rest of the list is published, TCU’s Gary Patterson, Iowa State’s Matt Campbell, Oklahoma State’s Mike Gundy, Texas’ Tom Herman and Oklahoma’s Lincoln Riley will be ahead of KU’s coach, too.
And if that fact ruffles your crimson and blue colored feathers, just remember: It could be worse. KU could have the 65th-ranked coach on this list.
From the time that it became clear to those who obsess over Kansas basketball that Bill Self was indeed the longterm answer for the program and a more than suitable replacement for Roy Williams, who left KU for North Carolina, those among the fan base prone to worrying about these types of things began fretting about which basketball team would one day lure Self away from Lawrence.
The popular potential offender quickly became the San Antonio Spurs.
KU conspiracy theorists pointed to Self’s longstanding friendship with Spurs general manager R.C. Buford, dating back to their college days at Oklahoma State.
At some point, they figured, head coach Gregg Popovich would leave the Spurs. And when that happened, the premise went, why wouldn’t Buford call up his old pal, Bill Self?
Through the years, fodder for such speculation grew. Self and Buford are close enough that R.C.’s son, Chase, joined the KU basketball team as a walk-on. After Bill’s son, Tyler, graduated from Kansas, he took an entry level job in the Spurs’ basketball operations office.
Yet, here we are, 16 years after Self took over the KU basketball program, and he’s still in Lawrence and Popovich remains in San Antonio.
Even so, this offseason was one that had to be circled on the calendars of the most paranoid KU basketball supporters, because Popovich's $11 million a year contract with San Antonio would expire at the conclusion of the 2018-19 season.
Throw in recent rumors of Self being a candidate for the Chicago Bulls’ job — as if Self doesn’t know Fred Holberg well enough to know to avoid that franchise; and, by the way, the Bulls signed Hoiberg's replacement, Jim Boylen, to a contract extension in January — and theorists might have even more reasons to worry about Self leaving for San Antonio, because the 70-year-old Popovich, hypothetically, could decide to retire.
If Self shooting down NBA rumors earlier this month and declaring his intentions to not only coach the Jayhawks next season, but also “hopefully” begin negotiating an extension of his contract, which expires following the 2021-22 season, didn’t do the trick for the Self to San Antonio worry warts out there, maybe this will.
Popovich told reporters Monday, two days after the Spurs’ season ended with a first-round loss to Denver, he’s negotiating a new contract with San Antonio.
We don’t know yet how long Popovich's new deal will last with the Spurs, so perhaps these developments only kick the Self as Pop’s replacement suspicions down the road a few years.
But here’s another hunch. Self won’t be the next coach in San Antonio.
The Spurs, unlike many NBA organizations, emphasize system and culture, because that’s what Popovich, head coach and president of the team, has put in place.
Popovich is to the Spurs what Dean Smith was to UNC and what Mike Krzyzewski is to Duke.
So when Popovich eventually decides to leave behind the franchise that is as synonymous with his name and face as it is with Tim Duncan’s, you can bet that Buford will ask Popovich for advice in finding the first new Spurs head coach since the 1996-97 season.
And when that day comes, here’s my hypothesis of how it will play out: it shouldn’t surprise anyone if Popovich helps pave the way for some NBA history by recommending the Spurs become the first team to hire a female head coach, San Antonio assistant Becky Hammon.
With so many rotation players from the Kansas basketball team transferring, declaring for the draft or testing the NBA waters it seemed a safe bet that Udoka Azubuike, who dipped his sizable toes into the pre-draft process a year ago, might not be around for the 2019-20 season, either.
Unfortunately for the center from Delta, Nigeria, his still mending right wrist led him to stick around.
This is, of course, also quite the fortunate development for head coach Bill Self and every player who gets a chance to team up with Azubuike at KU next season, because his presence equates to more victories.
As a junior, the largest man on KU’s campus averaged 13.4 points, 6.8 rebounds and 1.6 blocks, while shooting 70.5% from the floor in Kansas victories.
Here’s what Azubuike’s numbers looked like in KU losses: …
Just a second. Still looking. …
Hold on. …
Oh, here we are. There aren’t any of those stats.
When the big man played KU won. Would the Jayhawks have gone undefeated with a healthy Azubuike? Obviously not. But, let’s be honest, they would have finished with a better overall record than their 26-10 mark, would have had a much better chance of extending the program’s Big 12 title streak and would have ended up with a better seed in the NCAA Tournament — and, theoretically at least, an easier March Madness path.
True, Azubuike missed 75% of the season — a four-game stretch in December, followed by the wrist injury in early January that sidelined him for the remainder of the schedule. But in the games in which the 7-footer played, the Jayhawks didn’t lose.
KU went 9-0 with Azubuike manning the paint and finishing possessions with his backboard-vibrating dunks. What’s more, three of KU’s best wins of the season came with Azubuike in the lineup: neutral court victories over Michigan State, Marquette and Tennessee.
Outside of a surefire top-three draft pick, Azubuike is as big a difference-maker as any college basketball coach could dream to have on a roster.
Per sports-reference.com’s advanced stats, KU’s colossus in a No. 35 jersey led all Jayhawks during the 2018-19 season in player efficiency rating (31.5), true shooting percentage (64.9%), effective field goal percentage (70.5%), total rebounding percentage (18.3%), defensive rebounding percentage (23.4%) and usage percentage (30%).
The man is so massive inside that KU opponents know he can’t be stopped and still can’t do much about keeping the ball out of his hands. In his previous two seasons, a span of 45 games, Azubuike shot 266-for-352 (75.6%) from the floor, because he doesn’t take shots outside of his comfort zone and knows his limitations on offense.
The big man isn’t perfect, far from it. Good thing for KU, because if he was he would have already left for the NBA, either last year or this year.
Even when facing teams better equipped to deal with him, Azubuike’s presence alone makes KU a better offensive team. His minutes are still impactful ones when foul trouble limits how long he can be on the floor, as his 270-pound frame wears out the opponents who have to do their best to guard him.
When facing double teams from larger front lines that make it more difficult for him to catch and get to the rim, the fact that Azubuike’s out there at the very least makes it easier for KU perimeter players to find open shots and/or driving lanes. The attention he demands can open up offensive rebound opportunities for his teammates, too. Congratulations, David McCormack, you’ve just been gifted some easy putbacks and follow jams for your sophomore highlight reel.
We all know about Azubuike’s free throw issues — 41.3% as a sophomore and 11-for-32 as a junior (34.4%). That’s a discussion for another day. For now, head coach Bill Self and his Jayhawks can focus on how much easier it will be to win games next season, with their overpowering senior center on the floor.
If Azubuike can stay healthy during what will be his final year in Lawrence, it’s hard to envision the Jayhawks having another turbulent on-court season, such as the one they just went through, mostly without him.
And should the NCAA happen to clear Silvio De Sousa for takeoff, by granting KU’s appeal of his suspension, assuming Devon Dotson returns, KU should have one of the best lineups in the country.
Unless the NCAA hits Kansas where it hurts in the form of a postseason ban as a result of the federal investigation into college basketball corruption, the Jayhawks look like a team that will pick up plenty of 2020 Final Four buzz between now and next March.
Since the day he accepted the position 16 years ago, Bill Self’s job title at the University of Kansas has been head men’s basketball coach. But it might as well be general manager, CEO, president of basketball operations and czar of roster engineering, too.
Sure, his assistants help Self a great deal in both discovering and zeroing in on talented prospects on the recruiting front, but it’s ultimately up to the commander in chief of KU basketball to determine the composition of KU’s roster each and every season.
Through the years, Self has even often mastered the art of college basketball’s version of the waiver wire, with more than a dozen players transferring in and even more transferring out during his tenure. All the while, he’s adding high school prospects and often dealing with the possibility of any number of current players deciding to leave Lawrence early in pursuit of their NBA dreams.
As well as Self has handled that juggling act, tweaking KU’s roster has now become more difficult than ever. Rules currently in place allow college players to declare for the draft as underclassmen, do so with the help of an NBA-certified agent, receive feedback about where they may land in the first or second round and then decide whether it’s in their best interest to return to school or stay in the draft.
These rules exist to help each player make the best possible decision for his future. And that’s the way it should be.
This revamped pre-draft process just happens to make it extra challenging for high profile college basketball head coaches/general managers to plan in April for the following year’s roster.
Nine rotation players appeared in KU’s season-ending loss to Auburn in the NCAA Tournament’s second round. Most likely, at least four of them — Dedric Lawson (draft), K.J. Lawson (transfer), Charlie Moore (transfer) and Quentin Grimes (draft) — will be gone.
Five others — Ochai Agbaji, David McCormack, Marcus Garrett, Mitch Lightfoot and possibly Devon Dotson (draft) — could be back.
Then, as of Tuesday night at least, there’s the who knows category, occupied by ineligible through next season Silvio De Sousa and injured Udoka Azubuike.
If both of those bigs decide to go pro, too, Self and his staff, in a doomsday scenario, could have as many as six or seven scholarships to fill for next season, with only two Class of 2019 recruits — Christian Braun and Isaac McBride — currently on board.
And with those dipping their toes into the NBA Draft waters, there’s always the new possibility, even if they have an agent, that they could decide to come back by withdrawing from the draft.
“I think the new rule, maybe it’s a good rule, maybe it’s not,” Self said Tuesday night, following the team’s end of season banquet. “I think time will tell. But I do think it makes it hard to manage rosters, because it’s much easier to say ‘I’m gonna try something.’”
If anybody can pull off this dance, it’s Self. He made it clear that KU’s staff won’t sit back idly, waiting to hear what each potential draftee will decide.
“But the thinking of it is that if you open yourself up to try, then certainly you’re telling us that it’s OK to go sign somebody. So that’s probably not the ideal situation to be in. But I’d much rather have too many than not enough,” Self said.
It appears Dotson is using the early entry rules the way every talented player should, as an information-gathering tour that will set him up someday down the line for a successful NBA career. So at least some semblance of stability (probably) exists on that front.
But how will KU fill the rest of the roster with rotation-level players when the coaches don’t yet know how many spots they have to fill?
The man in charge, as you might have guessed, hardly seemed worried.
“So we’ve got some things that we’re working on to do,” Self said. “But I think in the next 10 days a lot of this is gonna clear up.”
The Kansas football fans who showed up Saturday for the Jayhawks’ spring game at David Booth Kansas Memorial Stadium got a bit of a surprise during one of the breaks in the action.
And for that matter, so did the man responsible for drawing so many of them there.
Les Miles admitted Monday he was caught a bit off guard when a skit he and KU basketball coach Bill Self teamed up for began playing on the giant video board at the south end of the stadium.
“I was walking off. I had no idea. I was oblivious to where they were going to play that,” Miles said. “I mean, if somebody would have asked me before. … No, obviously they’re not gonna play it at the spring game.”
The KU-produced video featured the athletic department’s two biggest names reenacting a scene from the Will Ferrell and John C. Reilly comedy, “Step Brothers.”
“So I’m walking off the sideline, I go, ‘I’m hearing my voice. What am I doing?’ And I look over there,” Miles described of his reaction when it began playing, “and I go, ‘You’ve gotta be kidding me.’ I bet I waited three to five minutes before I said, ‘What a terrible waste of a jumbotron.’ And off I went.”
The two don’t build a bunk bed together, but the video opens with Self asking Miles a simple question, once the football coach enters the room: “Who are you? And why are you in my office?”
Before long, Self and Miles are in staredown mode, both claiming to be “the Kansas ball coach.”
After some namedropping boasts about players each has coached in the past — Self shows off a photo of Andrew Wiggins and Joel Embiid before Miles lets him know he coached Odell Beckham Jr. — the two compare national championship rings, as well as pictures from each of their team’s trips to the White House.
The scene culminates with Self asking, “What is your favorite rapper from Florida?”
In unison, the coaches answer: “Rick Ross!”
That, of course, prompts Miles to deliver one of Ferrell’s memorable lines from the movie, “Did we just become best friends?” before the two high five.
Between the “Step Brothers” parody and Miles’ recent video announcing the Rick Ross performance for KU’s spring game, the 65-year-old who led LSU to a national title has proven open to embracing his less serious side at KU — even if there is some slight hesitation.
“What goes through my mind,” Miles said of when such ideas have been pitched his way, “is ‘I hope that my wife and kids don’t see this.’ That’s the first thing that I think. I enjoy the challenge. I really enjoyed the Bill Self thing. That was great fun.”
The way Miles sees it, “you only get to go around one time. There’s no do-overs. You might want to have some fun.”
If Kansas football coach Les Miles and his assistants currently have a depth chart they feel good about during the final stage of spring practices, they’re certainly not making it public.
However, during the Jayhawks’ open practice on Thursday — a light, pads-free warmup for Saturday’s spring game — the 11-on-11 session provided a glimpse of what KU’s two-deep just might look like right about now.
The first-string units that were in place for the 13th practice of the spring may not even look exactly the same when the Jayhawks reconvene under the lights for No. 14, when fans will get to watch KU scrimmage at David Booth Kansas Memorial Stadium.
Still, this particular practice was the first prolonged opportunity those outside of the program have had this spring to watch the offense and defense go toe-to-toe.
More players will join the roster in the summer, and some undoubtedly will factor into the two-deep at preseason camp. So it’s safe to describe the current state of the various position battles as fluid.
For Thursday at least, here’s who started on each side of the ball when the team period began inside KU’s new indoor practice facility.
QB - Thomas MacVittie
RB - Dom Williams
WRs - Daylon Charlot, Andrew Parchment, Kwamie Lassiter II
TE - Jack Luavasa
LT - Hakeem Adeniji
LG - Malik Clark
C - Api Mane
RG - Chris Hughes
RT - Clyde McCauley III
DE - Cody Cole
NT - Jelani Brown
DE - Darrius Moragne
Hawk - Azur Kamara
LB - Drew Harvey
LB - Dru Prox
CB - Hasan Defense
S - Bryce Torneden
S - Mike Lee
S - Davon Ferguson
CB - Corione Harris
After all of those presumed current starters took a fair amount of reps, coaches rotated in other Jayhawks.
Here are the players who showed up most often in reserve roles as KU spent most of its afternoon session pitting the offense against the defense.
QB - Carter Stanley
RB - Khalil Herbert
WRs - Takulve Williams, Ezra Naylor, Stephon Robinson Jr.
TE - James Sosinski
LT - Earl Bostick Jr.
LG - Jacobi Lott
C - Andru Tovi
RG - Adagio Lopeti
RT - Antione Frazier
DE - Willie McCaleb
NT - Sam Burt
DE - Jelani Arnold
Hawk - Najee Stevens-McKenzie
LB - Kyron Johnson
LB - Cooper Root
CB - Kyle Mayberry
S - Ricky Thomas
S - Jeremiah McCullough
S - Shaquille Richmond
CB - Elijah Jones and Elmore Hempstead Jr.
Other reserves got their fair share of reps at the practice, as well. These are the other backups who participated during the 11-on-11 work.
QBs - Miles Kendrick and Torry Locklin
RB - Donovan Franklin
WRs - Kameron McQueen and Evan Fairs
FBs - Sam Schroeder and Mac Copeland
OL - Joey Gilbertson and Kevin Feder
DL - Jalan Robinson
LB - Robert Topps III
S - DeAnte Ford and Julian Chandler
Again, there were no pads involved, so there wasn’t any real hitting or tackling. But there were some players who stood out as the KU football program opened its practice up to both the student population and members of the media.
A senior safety, Mike Lee, intercepted two passes on the afternoon. Another defensive back from New Orleans, junior safety Ricky Thomas, made another pick.
Although several receivers had a crack or two at some deep shots, it was junior Stephon Robinson Jr. who hauled one in successfully, despite solid coverage.
What was the most impressive catch of the day? Quarterback Thomas MacVittie gave that honor to one of the tight ends.
“I think our tight end, Sosa, had a one-handed, kind of behind him,” MacVittie recalled of a snag by senior James Sosinski that drew oohs and ahhs from his teammates nearby on the sideline.
“That just shows how athletic he is,” MacVittie added of the grab.
KU’s spring game is scheduled to begin at 6 p.m. Saturday. It will be available to stream on ESPN+ and broadcast locally and throughout the state on various cable platforms.
Don’t bring up the Kansas football team’s offseason conditioning sessions around Thomas MacVittie if you don’t want an honest response.
And if for some reason there happen to be children nearby when you do broach the subject with the junior quarterback, just tell the kids to earmuff it before MacVittie is reminded of those pre-sunrise sprints.
“(Expletive),” was MacVittie’s instant and visceral reaction when those workouts were mentioned.
Head coach Les Miles, his assistants and KU’s strength and conditioning staff made a point in February and early March, before the team’s spring football practices began, to push the players with intense conditioning work that doubled as a wake-up call — and an early one at that.
“It’s hard to kind of put into words, because there’s so many pieces that went into that puzzle,” MacVittie elaborated a few weeks back, when asked about how challenging that form of training was for the players. “First of all, waking up at 5 in the morning was a struggle, knowing the stuff that you were about to go through.”
The conditioning began promptly at 5:55 a.m. And even Miles admitted the workouts were not exactly designed to bring joy to the players’ lives.
“It tests you,” the KU football coach said. “It’s painful.”
However, as MacVittie would explain, the players understood how important it was to experience those mental and physical demands. A 6-foot-5, 215-pound QB from Cincinnati, Ohio, MacVittie said even though he’s no early riser, he appreciated the discipline instilled in the Jayhawks through the process.
To further their early a.m. misery, MacVittie said the coaches used what he called a “ding” system while watching the players’ runs. Any time a player failed to touch a certain line while sprinting back and forth on the turf at the indoor practice facility that player got dinged for coming up short.
“They time every rep that you have,” MacVittie added. “So if your rep is a couple of seconds (off), you’re not trying as hard, you’re dinged for that.”
According to Miles, the Jayhawks had to run “perfect sprints” at the very end of each morning workout, and they went through eight drills that were “very much like football games.”
The scrutiny didn’t end there, though. MacVittie said the whole coaching staff would watch video footage of the conditioning sessions “for two hours” after each one concluded. Each and every drill and every last Jayhawk was accounted for, thanks to the multiple cameras that captured every second of it from every feasible angle.
Even the players who were waiting in line had to be in “an athletic position,” with their wrists above their knees.
“And if you weren’t,” MacVittie said, “you would get dinged.”
As the Jayhawks endured it all, there was also a T-shirt system that measured their progress. MacVittie said everybody started off in gray KU football T-shirts. A player would receive a white one to wear if coaches deemed that particular Jayhawk was showing proper progress. What’s more, if players were what the QB described as “super-disciplined,” they got to wear a blue T-shirt.
What did that signify?
“You’re being a leader. You’re excelling in the things you need to do and you’re driving the team. Everybody was striving for the blues,” MacVittie shared. “If you got one ding you couldn’t get a blue shirt.”
Of course, all of this also made it easier for the Jayhawks to transition to spring football practice mode, once that began on March 6.
“I think it shows to the team that the details matter,” MacVittie said of the idea he took away from those demanding drills and sprints. “The details are why you win in the fourth quarter or overtime. Details are important. They’re going to be a first down or a fumble. It’s that small. It’s that small, getting your wrists above your knees. It’s that small, touching the line.
“That’s going to win games, believe it or not,” MacVittie said, “just that discipline.”
As much as the Kansas basketball players who lived through Saturday’s second-round NCAA Tournament encounter with Auburn would like to wipe the night full of lowlight memories from their heads, that’s not the way season-ending defeats work.
These types of losses frustrate, linger and fester. But eventually the mental wounds begin to heal, and when that happens they can fuel players, too. For all the pain and disappointment that dominated the Jayhawks’ thoughts inside Vivint Smart Home Arena, first as Auburn ran away to advance to the Sweet 16, then in the locker room when the season’s finality hit the team’s leaders with an emotional knockout punch, their psyches will recover in the days ahead.
For the KU players who are both driven and plan on returning for another postseason run in 2020, this 14-point loss to Auburn in a game that felt like a 30-point Tigers lead much of the night has the potential to be a launching pad for an offseason of growth and improvement.
That’s really the only good thing about such brutal losses. Even when the sting downgrades from a 10 to more manageable level, it won’t go away for competitors. And because it will always be there for certain players, they’ll be reminding themselves the entire offseason that they need to push themselves harder in order to make sure this brand of heartache that they confronted in Slat Lake City doesn’t devastate them again.
Five-star prospects don’t sign with Kansas to lose in the tournament’s first weekend. This wasn’t what Devon Dotson envisioned for his first taste of March Madness. And when he couldn’t will the Jayhawks to some semblance of a rally versus Auburn, it crushed him.
The toll of goals unrealized first weighed on KU’s freshman point guard late in the inevitable defeat, as he sat on the bench and did his best to fight off tears — covering his mouth with a towel, attempting mask the raw emotions of the moment.
But Dotson couldn’t escape those feelings by leaving the floor after the final buzzer. They hovered over him in the postgame locker room, too. Upon taking his seat, Dotson slumped over. A towel soon draped over his head, as he powered through answers to reporters’ questions, pausing on several occasions to find some composure when the tears wouldn’t stop falling form his eyes.
“We’re all brothers. This team has an unbelievable bond,” Dotson said regarding the visibly shaken look the Jayhawks wore in the aftermath of the defeat. “We’d do anything for each other. At the end of the day, we just wanted to play for each other. It just hurts.”
Dotson must’ve uttered some variation of that last word at least a dozen times during postgame interviews, repeatedly shaking his head in disbelief, covering his face with his hand at times, and his eyes downcast most of the session.
While the future of his teammate Dedric Lawson is unknown at this juncture — Bill Self said after KU’s loss to Auburn that Lawson and others will have decisions to make regarding their chances of going pro — Lawson summed up the mood inside the locker room perfectly, describing the NCAA Tournament as something he and his teammates grew up dreaming about.
“And it went away so quick,” Lawson said.
The Auburn Tigers know that feeling. In 2018, their dreams of a March run were dashed by Clemson in the second round with a 31-point loss.
A year later, they were the experienced team crushing a second-round foe for a berth in the Sweet 16. The Tigers looked not only fast, but also experienced, as they buried the Jayhawks in the first half.
For Dotson and other members of the KU rotation who return, this dismantling at the hands of Auburn, impossible as it may have seemed while they endured it, could end up becoming a driving force within the team’s DNA when the Jayhawks try to redeem themselves in the 2020 tournament.
“It’ll definitely be beneficial,” Dotson said of the admittedly upsetting circumstances. “You know, us growing as a team and taking that next leap next year.”
While Dedric Lawson and his brother, K.J., and Quentin Grimes didn’t want to get into on Saturday whether they will be back for another go-round at The Big Dance, it doesn’t look like Dotson is going anywhere.
“I’m just heartbroken from this loss,” Dotson said, when asked what’s next for him, quickly adding he would turn his focus to the offseason and “getting better.”
If Dedric Lawson were to leave to pursue a professional career, this would immediately become Dotson’s team. Regardless of the pecking order, the point guard already is a program leader, and he’ll continue to grow in that role in the months between now and the start of his sophomore season.
Dotson is the most competitive player on KU’s roster. And now that he’s felt what an early exit from the NCAA Tournament is like, he’s not the type of athlete to let it happen again. If he has to become the lead guard who carries the Jayhawks he’ll do it. If he has to motivate his teammates as they work together toward something greater, he’ll do that, too.
The Jayhawks won’t ignore or forget their March shortcomings anytime soon. And if they try to, Dotson will be there to remind them that’s not an option.